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Lillie’s Q Hates You; Wants You and Your Jerk Friends to Eat Somewhere Else

The following is an imagined conversation between the owner/manager of Lillie’s Q and his mentor, who is well-versed in the protocol and procedure of managing a dining establishment.

Lillie’s Q Owner:

Okay, so what about treatment of the customers? You’re supposed to be nice to them, right?

Mentor:

Nice? Are you joking? No, no.  Your job as  manager, owner, what have you, is to make the customers feel like it’s their privilege to be dining at your establishment. They are the lucky ones, not you. They are blessed to be given the golden, shining opportunity to eat your crappily-prepared and awkwardly-presented barbeque. Treat them like crap and they’ll be eating out of the palm of your hand.

LQO:

Huh. So treat them like crap? Interesting. Never thought of that. (Scribbles furiously on pad.)

So being accommodating, being friendly, making sure the customer is taken care of, all that stuff is out, right? I should probably just be super rude to everyone and ignore them at all costs?

M:

You learn quickly, my boy. Just live by these rules and you’ll make piles of money; so much money you’ll be swimming in it, like Scrooge McDuck. Oh, and another thing! Make sure your restaurant doesn’t take reservations. Reservations are for losers. You  must always cultivate an air of superiority, even it means making tables wait for upwards of two hours. This is key, son. Always make them wait.

LQO:

Wow. I’m so glad we had this conversation. But wait, I have a question. What if I serve all the beverages in Ball jars? Will that help mask my dickish attitude towards customers?

M:

Oh, absolutely. People fucking love drinking out of those jars. “Aww, look,” they’ll say,”how charming and Southern! Instead of regular old glasses, they’ve given us JARS to drink out of! I’m totally doing this at home from now on. I’m going to buy Ball jars off the internet and use them as glasses at home. It’ll be so cute and quaint!”

 LQO:

 Excellent.

Aaaaaaaaand scene.

Well, as I’m sure you’ve already gathered from that little scene study up there, I had a bad experience at Lillie’s Q this weekend. BBQ is really hot right now, and this place has been commended as being the latest in Chicago’s roster of awesome BBQ joints; with phrases like “new Southern” and “barbecue reimagined” being thrown around. I’d heard some buzz about this place and jumped at the chance to try it for myself on Saturday for my friend T.’s birthday.

Things started off on a sour note when we were told that, as a large party (we had maybe 10? 12 people?) we could expect a wait of about two hours, seeing as they don’t accept reservations. No matter, I said to myself, and decided to just start ordering drinks as we stood smashed up against the bar. I noticed that the bartender was blatantly ignoring us as we jockeyed for his attention over other people at the bar, and at one point he refused to even calculate what I owed him for drinks, ignoring me when I said I wanted to pay for my drinks as I had them instead of having them added to a tab.

After about an hour and a half of these shenannigans, we sensed they were starting to assemble our seating area. The bartender (who I later learned was also the owner) handed us our tab and as we settled up, he informed me that the management staff were thisclose to telling us to “go eat somewhere else”, as they “generally don’t seat large parties”. I gave this guy the side-eye as my brain tried to gauge whether or not he was joking with me, nodding and half-laughing as I wondered to myself “what kind of business owner turns down what could essentially be a very large tab, bringing in more money to the establishment and lining the server’s pocket?”

To me, it seemed as though he was suggesting we should be kissing his ass, falling over ourselves in gratitude that he and his blessed staff deigned to allow us to pay them for their services. My friend K. and I both agreed that this was the kind of thing you generally don’t share with your customers, as it could potentially be considered a rude thing to say. This basic rule of social interaction–taking care not to offend–didn’t seem to be on this guy’s radar.

We sat, we ordered, we ate. K. deemed the hush puppies “not as good as Red Lobster’s”, and was put off when her shredded chicken entrée arrived as a glob of chicken on  tray. Literally. That was it. No garnish, no nothing, just a blorp of shredded chicken on a piece of butcher paper, served on a small metal tray. It looked like cat vomit.

My pulled pork sandwich was pretty good, though Twin Anchors’ is better. I ordered it with a side of macaroni, which both K. and I agreed lacked flavor and was mushy and overcooked. I did enjoy the selection of five different barbecue sauces on the table, and glugged the spiciest one over my sandwich after every bite. The fried pickles were good in theory, but the breading flaked off as soon as I took a fork to it, leaving me with a hot, floppy, wet pickle slice.

Now, because it was T.’s birthday celebration dinner, we figured it would be fun to order a birthday dessert for him, perhaps with a candle for him to blow out. We were told that Lillie’s Q “doesn’t do that”, and subsequently sent out not one but two people from our table to scout down a pack of birthday candles to give to our server so he could place it atop the fucking cobbler or crumble or whatever it was. It was maybe an hour-long ordeal, during which our server was very patient, but I could tell that the rest of the staff was making fun of us. I even overheard another server in the kitchen talking about it like she’d never seen such a production before.

I get that we weren’t dining at Chuck E. Cheese, but come on. People celebrate birthdays at restaurants, and yes, even adults appreciate a chance to blow out some birthday candles. Get over yourselves, Lillie’s Q! We weren’t asking you to clap and sing! We simply wanted ONE GODDAMN CANDLE. Gah.

So. By the time the bill came, I was getting super anxious to leave. I also noticed that the later it became, the more the place basically had become a hangout for the owner and his friends, and they all stood at the bar shooting us dirty looks for breathing and being paying customers and having the audacity to exist. We paid and vamoosed. I don’t think I’ll be going back, unless I hear that the place has overgone a major ‘tude overhaul.

This, for me, is a worrying trend that I’m noticing more and more as new restaurants open in Chicago. I’m not sure what happened, but all of a sudden it became de rigueur for dining establishments to treat their customers like total crap, and act like they could give two shits about repeat business or food quality. It’s like everyone who opens a new restaurant is required to fail Hospitality 101 and instead get their masters in Advanced Topics in Being a Dick to Patrons.

It’s not cute or charming, and for a place that prides itself on serving down-home Southern food, the blatant disregard for the enjoyment of customers that I witnessed at Lillie’s Q was completely incongruous and frankly absurd. This place needs a reality check, and soon.

Meh & Meh

So, I was supposed to do this “cleanse” thing straight after New Year’s. In my head, I visualized the residue from all the rich, fatty foods I’d indulged in for the past two weeks being flushed out of my body, leaving it pure and clean for 2011. I don’t think I’m cut out for “cleansing” or “dieting” or depriving myself of any food-related whim that may pop into my head.

This cleanse, forwarded on to me by B.’s sister, consisted of a staggering amount of asparagus and cucumbers for snacking, a shitload of green tea, and lean proteins and veggies for meals. It’s really not THAT bad. And it was a two-day cleanse. Who didn’t last a day? THIS gal. Good God. There IS such a thing as too much asparagus, no matter what the pundits say!

It’s like that scene in Inception when JGL asks the Asian dude not to think about elephants. If you’re told, don’t think about elephants, what’s the first thing you think of? Fucking elephants. So this cleanse was like, I was telling myself “don’t eat carbs or sugar or any of that delicious crap” and my mind was all “give me carbs and sugar and nomnomnom I want it”. Long story short, the cleanse is over.

SEGUE

This past Saturday, a dinner with my mom and B. was on the agenda, so I chose a place I’d heard good things about but had yet to experience for myself: Kith & Kin. It’s tucked away in a charming stretch of Lincoln Park, right next to what appeared to be a baseball cap store, selling almost exclusively baseball caps. It was perplexing. I also wasn’t sure what the hell “kith” meant until I looked it up on the restaurant’s website: it means “friends”. Who knew!

True to form, my mom insisted on arriving 30 minutes before our reservation time, citing “snow and having to find parking”. There was no snow, and we found a spot right out front. Sigh. No matter! They sat us cordially and immediately, although we were one of maybe four other tables in the place. The inside space is quite lovely, boasting dark wooden floors and what looks like salvaged or original ornate ceiling tiles. However, it has a bit of an unfinished feel to it, and I noticed patches of unpainted wall and uncovered wires. The servers are all required to wear aprons of differing patterns and materials, which embues the place with a bit of a down-home, farmhouse feel. Our charming server wore a flowered apron and took care to explain how the menu worked (appetizers, shareable small plates, entrees, sides).

There was something weird going on with the staff. Either they were overstaffed or lacking diners, or both, neither of which bodes well for the future of a restaurant. Saturday nights are supposed to be slammed, and even as we were taking off at around 8:30, the tables still hadn’t really filled up all the way. Hence, I observed a great many number of servers leaning against the  bar, chatting and looking bored. This served us well, however, as the service throughout the night was impeccable. Our server anticipated our needs and always seemed to arrive at just the exact moment, offering more bread or wine. She was great. The service was actually better than the food, a rare and unique phenomenon which I’ve experienced only a handful of times.

The menu focuses mainly on contemporary American fare with a twist of French Creole thrown in for good measure. We ordered a foie gras pate served with strawberry preserves and brioche, Bar Harbor mussels served Belgian-style with broth, and my mom went with the blackened tiger shrimp served with smoked cheddar grits. B., also true to form, went with the buttermilk fried chicken thighs accompanied by braised collard greens and gravy. I chose the seared scallops, which came atop a serving of cauliflower “couscous”, and was topped with tomato basil soup.

This all sounds as if it should be fantastic, right? Well, it wasn’t.  It was just….good. It was good. I think perhaps I may be a bit spoiled by FDL and our insistence on quality, but I still feel that this meal could have and should have been better, especially for the price (the resulting check was upwards of $200). The scallops, while sizeable and seared perfectly, tasted a bit off. My mom’s tiger shrimp was tough and apparently “too spicy”. B.’s fried chicken was good. Not great, good. The mussels were passable, and the foie gras appetizer was sweet and cloying, more like a breakfast than anything else.

Honestly, I see so much potential in this place, and it seems as if they have yet to go that one step further that would take the food from just okay to really, really excellent. There was a lack of attention to detail that confused me, especially for a place that presents itself as a conscientious farm-to-plate establishment.

It’s 2011.

Yes it is, and I rang it in in the best way I know how: luxuriously. Behold, my plate full of luxury:

Yes, what you see there is a lobster tail, a filet mignon, truffle mac and cheese (which I made MYSELF thankyouverymuch), champagne risotto with asparagus AND blanched green beans. My dear Lord, it was delicious.

Now, because of my previous promise to myself to start actually getting my hands dirty in the kitchen, I chose to contribute to this New Year’s Eve Meal of Luxury by making truffle mac. Ina’s recipe, of course, because Ina knows what’s up when it comes to cheese and carbs. So, this recipe had shiitake and cremini mushrooms, and Gruyère and sharp cheddar cheeses, garlic breadcrumb topping and just an assortment of all the kinds of buttery delicious things I love to put in my face hole. And it actually turned out pretty well! People claimed it was good and I agreed with them, but vowed next time around I’d take it easy on the breadcrumb topping (and use FRESH breadcrumbs opposed to store-bought) and perhaps mix in a little extra shredded cheese with the crust. It was good, though. Truffly and crunchy and cheesey. I’m also thinking maybe I could, to paraphrase Emeril Lagasse, kick things up a notch by making it a tad spicy.

The rest of NYE weekend was spent playing extreme amounts of Xbox Kinect, competing intensely in track and field events and dance battles. I have never been so sore. Like, the arches of my feet are sore. How does that even happen?? I laughed when the introductory instructions to each game encouraged me to “rest or sit down” if I felt sore, disbelieving that anyone could be so terribly out of shape that they couldn’t even handle a few jumps or volleyball serves or javelin throws while playing a mere video game. I stand super corrected. Moving is still a little difficult on my tight calves and hamstrings and muscles I didn’t even know existed in my back and sides now twinge with every arm movement.

Another highlight of my Holiday Eating Extravaganza was taking B. to Hopleaf for the first time, after seeing TRON LEGACY 3D (must be said in robot voice). He’d never been and after the movie let out, I was in the mood for some warm, rustic, homey food and a good Belgian beer. We made a split second decision and shot over to Hopleaf where we settled in at the bar to wait for a table. We had a few beers, a pot of Belgian-style mussels, and a charcuterie plate with duck liver pate, duck prosciutto, and quail eggs. It was, simply put, perfect.

I hope you all spent your New Years Eves and holidays in the best company possible, as I did, and enjoyed doing whatever it is you enjoy doing the most.

Typical Text

This is the kind of thing my brother texts me. I’ve learned to just play along.

The Giving of the Thanks: Part 2 (Electric Boogaloo)

Breakfast was no joke. They were right. We arrived Friday morning back at the house, pretty much completely recovered and I for one was absolutely ready to fully and completely enjoy the food without the sickening aftereffects of a hangover getting in the way.

I grabbed a plate and got in line, watching as airy biscuits were loaded with smooth sausage gravy, slices of crisp bacon and spoonfuls of fluffy scrambled eggs landed on plate after empty plate. I was instructed that it was standard practice and tradition to reserve one biscuit to be spread with butter and jam, just to balance out the savory flavors and saltiness of the meaty breakfast meats. (Little known fact: “country ham”  is just code for “even saltier ham”). The sweet biscuit was almost a breakfast dessert, which I was grateful for after polishing off the remainder of the sodium-laden meal.

The Friday after Thanksgiving finally graced us with a little sunshine, so as the little kids were ushered off to go to a movie, the rest of us decided to go hang out at B.’s uncle’s farm and ride around on ATV’s and just be generally awesome. B.’s Uncle R. is a Renaissance man in every sense of the word. I mean, the man breeds Australian shepherd puppies, raises and slaughters his own pigs, and makes his own moonshine. Moonshine! I was instantly charmed. I’ve been known to be somewhat of a moonshine enthusiast, though when it comes to actually trying the stuff I generally pretend I’m getting sick and probably shouldn’t be sharing glasses with people but thanks anyway.  B. and M.. clearly being braver men than I, sampled the blackberry flavor and assured me it was eminently delicious.

At one point, I found myself in the kitchen as Uncle R. whipped up a batch of margaritas. I found this beverage choice to be amusingly incongruous with my surroundings, and chuckled inwardly as B.’s uncles sipped pink blended drinks out of palm tree-shaped margarita glasses and gathered around the TV; grunting, watching football, and talking about what could be done to fix one of the broken-down ATVs. One of these things is not like the other.

Eventually, the ATV got fixed and off we went. I clung tightly to B.’s ribcage as we jostled our way across the rough terrain of the Kentuckian hills, following B.’s cousin closely over enormous logs and through dense thickets of trees.

“Watch out for the twigs, they’ll getcha right in the face!” B.’s cousin warned, and I decided it might just be best to bury my face in B.’s back until this ride was over, not wanting to risk a poked-out eye or a slashed face. It was actually a really beautiful day for this, and as we climbed up the hills behind Uncle R.’s house, I looked out across the landscape and marveled at the rolling fields and crooked little houses with smoke unfurling from their chimneys. It was like a postcard.

Our off roading adventure led us back to the house where we’d eaten breakfast that morning and dinner the night before. I had to get off the back of the vehicle so B. could urge the thing over a small creek and up a steep and muddy incline. “My work here is done!” I declared, dismounting the ATV, deciding things like this were better left to the menfolk to deal with. I then promptly got entangled in a bunch of thistles, from which it  took me about ten minutes to extract myself. Serves me right, I guess.

The rest of the evening was spent grazing on leftovers and fiddling with the color on the TV, which somehow had become stuck on the greener end of the color spectrum. We then went back to the cousin’s house where I got solidly whooped in both Taboo and Cranium. I blame the pinot grigio.

The next morning we were to depart for our final stop: Louisville.

A Word on Plagiarism

It has recently been brought to my attention that there is a blogger out there who is blatantly ripping off content, tone, and style from mine. I refused to believe that such a thing would happen, but upon closer inspection I saw that yes, this person is directly lifting topics and subject matter, even turns of phrase, straight from the pages of Hungrypants.

This makes me upset for a few reasons. Number one being, this blog is original content. I work hard at coming up with topics and tidbits to post here, and I consider it to be a unique and personal place that I can come and share ideas and insights and observations with my friends and followers. Number two, personal blogs are supposed to be just that: personal. You cannot imitate someone’s style and subject matter and then try to pass it off as your own. That is lazy writing and frankly a pathetic and embarrassing attempt at being individualistic that fails miserably when you can’t even come up with your own topics.

I realize I am not the only food blogger out there. Far from it. I am not operating under the delusion that I am a special snowflake in the food blogging world, but I can say that everything I write here comes from my own brain, written from my own experiences, or culled from my own viewpoints and sentiments about certain subjects. I pride myself on having strong opinions, and it brings me great pleasure to share them in this space and have them met with a huge range of reactions and arguments. I appreciate it when people don’t agree with me, and I like having this forum as an outlet for all the weird shit that passes through my head.

That is what makes it uniquely mine. If you have a blog that you’ve created, make it uniquely YOURS. Don’t pick and choose from what I post here and try to make those topics your own, because they are not. Be original. Be creative. It’s not hard.

Oysters on the Half Shell! Oyster Power!

Friday night was just one of those nights. I’d come off a hellish workweek and wanted nothing more than to spend the entire evening with in my pajamas, on my couch, drinking wine from Walgreen’s. B. had other plans, however. After a good hour of waffling back and forth between going out and staying in, I finally decided to cave into B.’s insistence that we have a “night on the town” and his desire for fresh seafood, so off we went to Half Shell on the northern edge of Lincoln Park.

I’d heard nothing about this place, ever, and I kind of feel like a bad Chicagoan for admitting this because apparently it’s in the same league as far as Chicago institutions go as The Berghoff and Gibson’s. It’s easy to miss, nestled as it is on an unassuming corner of Diversey, and hidden in a space no bigger than someone’s basement.

This is the kind of place that is downright ideal for whiling away several blissful hours on a cold and blustery winter’s night. It’s dark and lit mostly by strands of multicolored Christmas lights that I’m willing to wager remain on display all year round, a la Butch McGuire’s. Tables are mismatched and packed tightly together, assuring for some awkward maneuvers as people squeeze their way between chairs to get to their seats. A fireplace burns brightly in the back left hand corner of Half Shell, crowned with a plastic stuffed fish and surrounded by walls adorned with other such kitschy nautical items like anchors and rusted-out signs.

B. and I were expecting a long wait but the bartender, who is also in charge of seating in a remarkable lack of attachment to traditional restaurant seating procedures, informed us there was a small table in the back. Our table bordered the busy thoroughfare used by the staff and while this may have bothered some, it allowed us a firsthand view of the orders being brought forth out of the clanging kitchen. A few minutes later, the table behind us left and we were able to snuggle into a cozy, two-person booth right next to the fireplace. Our server was a no-nonsense, middle-aged dude with tatted arms and a thick, Ditka-esque accent; and whose way of asking if B. wanted a refill on his beer was to nudge the mug with his knuckles and raise his eyebrows.

The menu was slightly off-putting to me at first, as it was limited and filled with things like fried clam strips and fried oysters and other manner of breaded sea dwellers. Luckily, the specials board informed us that there was an Alaskan King crab and snow crab leg combo basket available, which instantly caught my eye. B. ordered six blue point oysters as our appetizer and they arrived at our table almost instantly. These oysters were meaty things, each rugged shell half was filled with a mouthful of briny oyster and the entire plate came with a tiny paper cup of horseradishy cocktail sauce and two lemon slices. B. chose to suck the oysters straight from the shell after a squirt of lemon and a dab of sauce, whereas I used my tiny fork to dislodge the meat from its shell. I slopped on blobs of the horseradish sauce and nearly drained the lemon of its juice to make a delicious little oyster soup of sorts before scooping it out with my fork. They tasted unbelievably fresh and juicy, with only a slightly brackish tang at the back end.

Our crab legs came in a big plastic basket; giant, steaming, hulking crab legs that dwarfed the basket itself and were served with little ramekins of melted, garlic herbed butter. After digging under the crab legs, a mountain of fries were unearthed, deeper still and there sat slices of toasted bread. It was like the never ending basket of seafood miracles. We instantly went to work on releasing the crab meat from its shell, crunching with our crackers and digging with our tiny forks for every last scrap. Half Shell’s crab legs weren’t any dinky, anemic excuses for crab legs from Red Lobster, no sir. These legs were bursting with meat and boasted a remarkably aromatic and fresh flavor, requiring so much work that for awhile our table fell silent as we focused intently on extracting the tastiest morsels.

Meals like the one at Half Shell are among my favorite kinds of dining experiences. There’s no frills, no pretension, just simple but completely and undeniably delicious food in a laid-back, jovial atmosphere. It’s the perfect place to take a date, or a friend, or your family, or a STRANGER for God’s sake, as long as they can appreciate a basket o’ crab and a cold beer.